The Valdosta Daily Times
MANKATO, Minn. —
The Valdosta State Blazers couldn’t help but chant it, “We’re going to the ship.”
The Valdosta State football team clinched its fourth-ever trip to the NCAA Division II National Championship Game, beating the previously-unbeaten Minnesota State-Mankato Mavericks 35-19 in the national semifinals on Saturday in near freezing temperatures.
The Blazers will face Winston-Salem State in the championship game next Saturday at Braly Municipal Stadium in Florence, Ala.
“It is really surreal,” said receiver Seantavious Jones, who smiled during the entire postgame press conference. “We have worked so hard all year. It is amazing.”
Playing against the nation’s third-best defense, which entered Saturday’s game allowing just 267 yards per game, the Blazer offense overcame a sluggish opening 18 minutes and a 10-0 deficit, and racked up 498 yards of total offense and scored on five of its final eight possessions to secure the win.
Quarterback Cayden Cochran completed 16 of 28 passes for 278 yards, including several down the field passes to Jones (4 catches, 122 yards and a touchdown) and Gerald Ford (8 catches, 76 yards and a touchdown), in the win. Freshman Austin Scott ran for 158 yards and a late fourth-quarter touchdown.
Defensively, the Blazers stepped up after allowing 118 yards on 22 plays in the first quarter, and were able to limit the Mavericks’ offense, especially in the red zone. Inside the red zone, VSU’s defense rose to the occasion, forcing a turnover on downs in the first quarter and a field goal later in the game.
“That was big,” Valdosta State head coach David Dean said. “Any time you can hold those guys from putting seven on the board and hold them to three, that is big. It is also demoralizing to an offense to put together a great drive and get inside the 10 and not get a touchdown.”
Along with pressure in the red zone, the Blazers were able to make several adjustments and eventually slow down Mankato quarterback John Wolf, who had over 100 yards rushing less than five minutes into the second quarter. He finished the game with just 127 yards.
“We just seem to work better in the second half,” said VSU linebacker Jeremy Grable, who recorded a team-high 12 tackles and a sack. “I have to commend that quarterback. To me, he is the best we’ve seen all year. We were real frustrated with him, and we just tried to contain him. Once we got it done, it was right from there.”
After Mankato took a 3-0 lead on a field goal late in the first quarter — its first drive ended with a turnover on downs inside the red zone — and added a 17-yard touchdown pass from Wolf to Adam Thielen early in the second quarter, the Blazers scored on back-to-back possessions to take a 14-10 lead going into halftime.
“We had to have a score,” Dean said. “We put our defense in a heck of a bind early in the game, because (Mankato) went on a long drive and then we went three-and-out. Our defense was out there way too long. So for us to put together a long drive and follow it up with a 97-yard drive, to keep our defense off the field, that was a huge difference in the game.”
Cochran led the Valdosta State offense down the field, making several short-yardage completions before connecting with Jones on a 40-yard pass down the visitors’ sideline.
A few plays later, Cochran connected with Ford on an 8-yard score, cutting VSU’s deficit to 10-7.
“We felt like we could connect with our guys underneath,” Dean said. “But we felt like we had some opportunities off play action to go deep. I thought Cayden did a great job at getting the ball to Seantavious and Gerald Ford, making those type plays.”
On their next possession, which started at their own 3-yard line, the Blazers marched 97 yards on 13 plays to take their first lead of the day. On third-and-goal, Cochran found Jones in the corner of the end zone for a 9-yard score, giving the Blazers a 14-10 lead.
Valdosta State started the second half with a commanding 10-play, 75-yard drive, capped off by a 5-yard touchdown run by Cochran to take a 21-10 lead.
Cochran’s touchdown run was set up by a 39-yard pass play to Regginald Lewis, who spun out of a potential two-yard loss and stayed on his feet to run to the 5-yard line.
“Regginald’s play, that is just his unmatchable heart,” Cochran said. “That is what the kid has and brings to the table. He comes to work every day, and he wants to make those plays. Their crowd got loud for about two good seconds, and then they got pretty quiet when he broke about five tackles. That definitely pushed us forward.”
Mankato drove right down the field on its following possession. Once in the red zone, the Blazer defense, once again, picked up its intensity and forced the Mavericks to kick a 39-yard field goal. The Blazers led 21-13.
Just seconds into the fourth quarter, Cochran extended the Blazers’ lead to 28-13 on a naked quarterback boot from the 1-yard line. Cochran had scored on the previous play, but a replay determined he was down inside the 1-yard line.
On the drive, Cochran was able to connect with his favorite down-the-field target, Jones, which positioned the Blazers in the red zone. On the play, Cochran pump-faked to draw the defense close, allowing Jones to get free down the sideline.
Mankato scored on its following possession with a 6-play, 75-yard drive, but missed the extra point, keeping the score 28-19. More importantly, the Blazers still led by two possessions with less than five minutes to play in the game.
After the Blazers went three-and-out and punted the football, Mankato drove down the field, using a 12-play, 66-yard drive, but was forced to settle for a field goal. A bad snap caused the kicker to hesitate, sending the kick wide left. The Blazer sideline erupted in a jubilant cheer, and the Mankato faithful flocked to the exits.
With the crowd filing out of the stadium, the Blazers capped the scoring with Scott’s 31-yard touchdown run.
NOTES: With his 76 yards receiving, Ford eclipsed the 1,000-yard receiving mark on the season. … Scott needs eight yards rushing next week to become the Blazers’ second 1,000-yard rusher this year. … While many VSU fans did not make the trip to Mankato, many followed along on the popular social media website Twitter. During the third quarter, the hash tag BlazerNation was trending worldwide. Later in the night, the hash tag VSUFootball started trending.
National championship game ticket information
Tickets for Saturday’s national championship game will go on sale Monday at the VSU Ticket Office, located inside the P.E. Complex off Baytree Road. The university has 1,000 tickets to sell at $25 per person. Tickets will go on sale Monday morning at 8:30 a.m. Tickets will also be on sale at the gate at Braly Municipal Stadium in Florence.